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Rebels show heart in signing special football recruit

Updated May 1, 2017 - 10:10 pm

On Monday, UNLV signed the last recruit of its 2017 football class. He is only 9 years old, a third-grader at Hayes Elementary.

His name is Thaddeus Thatcher.

He doesn’t stand 6 feet 4 inches tall and weigh 230 pounds. He’s sort of small and has long dark hair that sticks out from under his ball cap, at least now, because for the past two years he has been fighting T-cell leukemia/lymphoma, which is in remission.

He’s still playing quarterback for his youth football team.

He wears No. 18 like his favorite players, Peyton Manning and Tate Martell, formerly of Bishop Gorman, now of Ohio State.

It was Tate’s parents who paid for special pads to accommodate Thaddeus’ chemotherapy port, so he could continue to play football.

It was Tate who flew home to attend Thaddeus’ recent treatment party, to tell his little buddy about the touchdown he scored in the Buckeyes’ spring game. Thaddeus could relate, because he’s still playing football and the other sports, such as wrestling and gymnastics, and let those doctors put that in their charts.

Defying the odds

“One of the first things they told us was that he would never play football again. That was unacceptable to him, and unacceptable to us,” Chrissie Thatcher said after her son “committed” to the Rebels on Monday during a news conference at the Lied Athletic Complex, and they to him.

It’s a perfect fit, she said. The first thing her son did upon getting out of the hospital after his initial round of chemo was have his parents drive him to a Rebels game. He still was wearing his hospital mask.

“Being a part of this team … these boys come to his school, they text him, they call him, they’re planning something for his birthday,” Chrissie Thatcher said.

She was speaking of Thaddeus’ new teammates, especially Darren Woods, Gabe McCoy and Trevor Kanteman, the trio who asked most of the questions Monday. Thaddeus was seated next to UNLV coach Tony Sanchez, behind a microphone. He didn’t say much, mostly because he is shy until you get to know him, his mom said.

His bashful smile spoke 1,000 words for him.

“Once I found out about Thaddeus and the journey he’s been through, I wanted to be part of it,” Kanteman said.

Every day brings challenges, Chrissie Thatcher said. None more so than Oct. 21, 2014. That was the day Thaddeus’ parents took him to see a doctor, because it seemed it was taking a long time for his stuffy nose to clear up.

Thaddeus had tumors in his nose.

His blood counts were out of whack.

When the grim diagnosis came, his mom says there were four other local youngsters who were fighting T-cell leukemia/lymphoma.

Now there are two.

Tough pills to swallow

Thaddeus takes a pill every day, a dozen or more on the weekend, even in remission. He has had more than 50 spinal taps and undergone four bone marrow operations. But to look at him, you would never know.

“He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever met — they all are,” Chrissie Thatcher says about her son and the other young cancer patients.

The Rebels, on the other hand, still are working on it.

Thaddeus’ new team lost four games last year by a touchdown or less, which at the time seemed like a cruel fate for a UNLV squad that always seems to be rebuilding.

On days like Monday, it seemed selfish to even give those narrow defeats a second thought.

“I’ve got a son in seventh grade and a daughter who is a sophomore and I love them more than life itself,” Sanchez said. “When you seen a young man like this — he’s got leukemia, dealing with something that’s life and death.

“You see how courageous he is, how his parents have surrounded him with love, and he’s back out there, playing sports. The kid’s got no quit, and I’m not going to whine about anything on my plate.”

That includes a 33-30 loss to Idaho in overtime. Not relevant. Not on this day. Not on a lot of days.

A couple of years ago, when Sanchez took the reins of UNLV’s moribund program, I said it wouldn’t be fair to judge him until after his third season, at least.

Upon further review, I have changed my mind.

The verdict on Tony Sanchez is in. He should consider himself judged.

I find him guilty of multiple counts of kindness and compassion, and of doing a heartwarming thing for a brave young man and his family who already have endured so much.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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